History of the Penicuik Estate

The designed landscape was created in stages during the later 17th and 18th Centuries and was associated with both an earlier and the present house. Its principal creator in the first half of the 18th Century was Baron Clerk. It is of outstanding importance in the development of landscape gardens in Britain because it represents the transition from Baroque regularity to naturalistic landscape, with features from its programme of development well preserved, all within an outstanding natural wooded scenery. The eighteen structures and monuments within the landscape provide focal points for this picturesque aesthetic.

Penicuik House from 'Views in Scotland' c.1820

Two of the key architectural features created by the Baron at Penicuik - the Knights Law Tower and the Hurley Cave - are seminal examples of their type in Scotland, as well as being early examples in Britain as a whole.

Baron Clerk was the most advanced and articulate theorist on landscape gardening in Scotland during the first half of the 18th century. Although some of his ideas drew upon concepts of landscape design just beginning to be disseminated in England, many were highly original. His ideas on architecture and landscape gardening were articulated in his long poem, "The Country Seat", and were put into practice at Penicuik.


The Penicuik Estate in the 17th Century - The 1st Baronet

By arranging fields and woodland to form an attractive setting for the house in the late 17th century, the 1st Baronet created what we now term a 'designed landscape.' Penicuik is amongst the earliest such designed landscapes in Scotland.


The Penicuik Estate in the Early 18th Century - The 2nd Baronet, 'The Baron'

The Baron took over responsibility for the planting of the Penicuik estate. According to his memoirs, "about the year 1699 when I came from abroad I took great delight in planting nurseries, and tho' I lived not always with my father, yet in the Spring seasons I keep'd a dozen men at work for two to three months yearly". He planted extensively across the estate until his death in 1755. The natural topography of the land was one of great beauty and influenced many of the improvements.

Penicuik Estate by John Ainslie, 1796

During the second quarter of the century the Baron made features of existing rugged natural elements within the landscape; and where these did not naturally exist he created artificial ones. In this, he anticipated the precepts of the sublime and the 'Picturesque' by a generation.

In 1733 work began on the upper pond. A bank was built along the south of the Balckpools Park, and a square pond formed. This was surrounded by woodland cut through with walks in a formal manner. The pond was asymmetrically linked to the house, by a long line walk which followed the line at which the ground fell away into the park towards the Esk. At some point along this walk Sir John proposed to build a library and museum overlooking Blackpools Park, but although he made sketches the idea was never realised.

In 1738 the South Avenue was extended to Cauldshoulders Park. The avenue began at the house where its axis crossed the river North Esk, a 'Roman' bridge was built. Although Sir John produced sketches of a 'ruin' to terminate this vista, it was his son Sir James, who in 1759 built the pierced obelisk dedicated to the painted Allan Ramsay which now closes the view.

Roman Bridge survey by Simpson & Brown >Ramsay Monument survey by Simpson & Brown

The Hurley Cave and Ponds were commenced in 1740 and completed in 1742. Hurley Cave is an artificial tunnel about 40m long, approached by a bridge over the river and entered through a rusticated arch. The tunnel rises up a slope of about 10 degrees and is cut through rock at its centre. Near the middle of the tunnel, hollowed out of rock, is a domed chamber which contains the inscription "Tenebrosa occultaque cave" ("Beware of Dark and Hidden Things". Sir John had visited London in 1727 and again in 1733, when he visited Chiswick. It has been suggested that his design may have been influenced by Alexander Pope's garden grotto. The visitor experience of Hurley Cave was described by Sir John in his own words:

"No one can get across to it but by the mouth of a frightful cave. To those who enter, therefore, first occurs the memory of the Cuman Sibyl, for the ruinous aperture, blocked up with stones and briars strikes the eye. Then comes upon the wayfarers a shudder, as they stand in doubt whether they are among the living or the dead. As indeed certain discords set off and give finish to musical cadencies in such a way as to render the subsequent harmony more grateful to the ear, so does the mouth of this mournful cave, with its long and shady path followed by the light and prospect make the exit more delightful. For suddenly the darkness disappears, and it is as it were at the creation of a new world".

Sketch of Hurley ponds by the 2nd Baronet

The Baron was delighted with this creation "My constant walk", he wrote at the age of 73, "is to my pond at Hurley and Grotto where I take great delight". Sir John also added a summerhouse, now gone, at the edge of Hurley Pond; "To entice my friends... to walk for their diversion and in this I have found great advantage. The natural beauty of the place and the solitude which one finds are a great help to the studies and meditation".

The Chinese Gates of fretted and painted oak which terminate the Avenue to the east of the house, before the ground drops steeply to the Esk and rises again, were erected by James Blaikie in 1758.

Chinese Gates, built in 1758

A battlemented and machicolated tower which doubled as a dovecot was erected on Knights Law, directly in front of the house and high above the main avenue, between 1748 and 1751. This not only served the purpose allowing views from the top over the surrounding countryside but acted as an eye-catching feature in the landscape.

Sketch of Knights Law Tower by the 2nd Baronet

The Penicuik Estate in the Later 18th Century - The 3rd Baronet

The development of Penicuik by the 3rd Baronet in the second half of the 18th century into a designed landscape in the 'natural' or 'English Landscape Garden' style as a setting for the new Penicuik House, is important in its own right, though perhaps less remarkable than the earlier work.

In the 1760s the 3rd Baronet created the walled garden at Eskfield, with a two-storey pavilion by John Baxter, of brick with stone dressings and a pedimented gable with vases. The garden is unusual in that it is roughly semi circular in plan. The Cornton Burn flows through it and joins the river Esk immediately to the south.

The garden was once famous for its extensive array of glasshouses which were recorded by J.C. Loudon in the early 19th century.

It was maintained until the First World War, and is now partly used for grazing and partly as a private garden.